Physicians must help lead Ky. out of the opioid epidemic

Constricted pupils, slowed breathing, blue lips and skin. Health care providers in Kentucky have become all too familiar with these telltale signs of a drug overdose. It’s not a pleasant sight, and last year alone, opioid overdoses caused the deaths of more than 1,400 Kentuckians.

During my 34 years as an emergency physician, I have never witnessed a public health issue as dire as the state’s current opioid crisis. This epidemic has significantly impacted our communities, our families, the health care system and even the economy.

Physicians remain on the frontlines of the opioid crisis and have a critical role to play in curbing abuse and addiction. By working closely with patients, we can help stop addiction before it starts and ensure those who are already struggling have access to the evidence-based treatments they need to recover and return to healthy, productive lives.

Last month, hundreds of doctors from around the state convened in Louisville for the Kentucky Medical Association’s annual meeting to discuss the opioid problem, its effects on different communities and what physicians can do to most effectively address the problem.

A common theme emerged: Doctors in all parts of Kentucky must step up as community leaders if we want to end drug abuse and addiction for good. Through patient education, safe prescribing practices and strategic treatment plans, physicians can truly help lead Kentucky out of the opioid crisis.

However, a doctor’s work cannot end when he or she leaves the office—which is why the Kentucky Medical Association offers members multiple avenues to help them better engage with their local communities and make a lasting difference in patients’ lives.

KMA’s Kentucky Physician Leadership Institute, for example, invites doctors to participate in interactive trainings on personal leadership, business leadership and advocacy. And this year, I was proud to complete KMA’s Community Connector Leadership Program, which helps physicians enhance their leadership skills through education and community engagement.

Groups like the Kentucky Medical Association are encouraging physicians to tackle public health problems by taking on leadership roles in their communities, and more importantly, they’re giving us the tools and education we need to be effective.

These physician leadership programs stem from the indisputable truth that the more we understand and interact with our patients and our communities, the better we can serve them. And as the opioid epidemic continues to spread, there has been no better time for doctors to step up and commit to being leaders both inside and outside the office.

The opioid epidemic has already done too much damage and taken too many lives in Kentucky. But with more physicians leading the way, we may finally put an end to it.

Robert Couch, MD, is a board-certified emergency physician in Louisville who currently serves as secretary/treasurer of the Kentucky Medical Association, as well as a board member of The Healing Place.